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17 Apr, 2008 05:25

Mystery buyer bags tsarist relic in New York

A rare artefact from Russia’s tsarist past has gone under the hammer at Sotheby’s in New York. The religious painting, held back until the last day of a sale devoted to Russian art, sent bidders into a frenzy.

The work that caused all the fuss is a relic from the Romanov dynasty depicting Russian saints. The 1895 triptych was presented to Tsar Nicholas II on the birth of his eldest daughter, Olga.

After the revolution in 1917 it was sold to the American millionaire Armand Hammer, the icon's last confirmed owner.

Russian historians have been trying to acquire the piece for years. According to Sotheby's, the Russian Tsarskoye Selo Museum attempted to buy the piece privately before the auction, but the seller declined.

The lucky new owner bought the Romanov icon by phone, preferring to remain anonymous.

Auction participant Richard Shapiro sympathises with Russia’s desire to reclaim its artefacts.

“It would be like somebody trying to buy the Liberty Bell,” he said.

In recent years the Russian Orthodox Church has worked with state and private donors to obtain art lost under communism.

Rev. Hieromonk Joseph of the Russian Orthodox Church says most icons were originally created for prayer and should be returned to their proper cultural roots.

“Holy things belong in holy places,” he said.

But as the Romanov icon's owner remains unknown, so does its future.

“It can be only our hope that whoever acquires this icon will realise its spiritual significance and find a way to make it possible for the people of God to offer it proper veneration,” Rev. Hieromonk Joseph added.